My Baby Does the Hanky Panky: Sex Is Bigger Than You (and Me and Everyone We Know)

Two remarkable articles about sex–you know, coitus–have come across my screen in the past couple […]

David Zahl / 2.6.13

Two remarkable articles about sex–you know, coitus–have come across my screen in the past couple weeks, both of them refreshingly offbeat. The first comes from Alain De Botton, he of Religion for Atheists fame and the new How to Think More About Sex. It appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the suitably provocative title, “Why Most Men Aren’t Man Enough to Handle Web Porn”.

De Botton is interested in exposing, pun intended, the strange double-bind of what passes for discourse about sex in our culture, namely, that you can talk about it in terms of enjoyment or empowerment, but not so much in terms of compulsion and helplessness lest you be labeled an enemy of personal liberty and happiness. To acknowledge that our libidos are often more powerful than we are (or at least our capacity for rational thought)–that they can be the engines of both pleasure and suffering–is to invite the whole ‘puritanical’ gig. Just look at how squeamish people get when you talk about sex addiction. It takes the discussion out of the realm of morality (where we are comfortable) into one of agency (much less so), in particular, the more-frequent-than-we’d-care-to-admit impotence of ethical categories when the lights go out. They are simply no match for desire, at least internally (Mt 5:28). The bedroom, as we all know, is Exhibit A when it comes to the limits of human willpower–and the lack thereof when it comes to human need (for love and deliverance, not guidance or instruction):

9781250030658It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally “modern” on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.

However, anyone who has experienced the power of sex in general and internet pornography in particular to reroute our priorities is unlikely to be so sanguine about liberty. Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly. In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom. Our anxious moods are genuine but confused signals that something is amiss, and so they need to be listened to and patiently interpreted – which is unlikely to happen when we have to hand one of the most powerful tools of distraction ever invented. The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs. Furthermore, pornography weakens our tolerance for the kind of boredom which is vital to give our minds the space in which good ideas can emerge, the sort of creative boredom we experience in a bath or on a long train journey.

the-libertines1Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities. Only religions see sex as potentially dangerous and something we need to be guarded against. We may not sympathize with what religions would wish us to focus on instead of sex, we may not like the way they censor, but they do recognize that sexual images can indeed overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease…

The secular world has no problems with bikinis and sexual provocation of all kinds because, among other reasons, it does not believe that sexuality and beauty have the potential to exert a momentous power over us. One is meant to be quite able to behold beauty, online or in reality – and get on with one’s life as though nothing in particular had happened.

It is not an insult to human beauty to suggest that the matter may not be quite so simple. Indeed, it is a tribute to the power of beauty to think otherwise. Religions may be mocked for being prudish, but far from it. In so far as religions warn us against sex, it is out of an active awareness of the charms and power of desire. They wouldn’t think that sex was quite so bad, if they didn’t appreciate that it could be quite so wonderful – and if they weren’t brave enough to admit that this necessarily means that it will also get in the way of some rather important and precious things, like God or your life.

Now before we get into ‘a whole thing’ about legislation, what interested me is the implication that an acknowledgement of the non-casualness of sex might actually bring with it some compassion for those who are caught in its grip (both willingly and un-) and do so without dismissing their pain, exonerating infraction(s) or denying the beauty that might exist side-by-side with the dysfunction. Which is probably just another way of saying that, like pretty much everything else that involves passion and feeling, our sex lives are neither strictly volitional nor necessarily benign.

The second article, “Sex in the Meritocracy,” comes from Helen Rittelmeyer (responsible for that incredible Arrested Development and Brothers K piece) and is equally fresh in how it explores the, er, performancism that has found its way between the national sheets. According to Rittelmeyer, what some have mistaken for debauched hedonism on college campuses may in actuality be nothing more than the latest cultural annex of an achievement and (sexual) righteousness-obsessed mindset. You know, self-justification and all that. Then again it may just be that young people really, really like sex (as Mr. De Botton might suggest). Her piece appeared in First Things, as a review of Nathan Harden’s controversial book, Sex and God at Yale, ht KW:

When Yale first bowed to the spirit of meritocracy and began admitting large numbers of students from outside the New England upper class, it set in motion a nationwide arms race among high-achieving high school students. After fifty years of escalating competition, it is no longer enough to have an SAT score in the top 1 percent and a record of achievement in a single activity. To have a decent chance of being admitted to Yale, a student must be a top all-rounder: an academic star, a varsity athlete, a musical virtuoso, a community-service volunteer, and president of some extracurricular club. To have a better-than-even chance, he must be world-class or nationally ranked in one of these.

SexWeek2As a result, every admitted student believes he must be excellent at anything he tries. In the old Yale, campus culture developed from the upper-class traits that most students shared and the rest hoped to adopt. In the new, more diverse Yale, the only thing students share is ambition, and it determines attitudes toward grades (anything below an A-minus can be disputed with the professor), extracurriculars (hardly anyone spends four years in a club without achieving a leadership position), and even drugs. Instead of marijuana or cocaine, Yale’s pharmaceutical network now traffics mostly in Adderall, the wonder drug that, as one girl told me, “makes you want to work.” Surely this is the first generation of college students in which even the drug users are more interested in working hard than getting high.

This overachiever’s mentality has also determined campus attitudes toward sex. Few notice the connection, because the end result—sexual permissiveness—is the same as it was in the sixties and seventies, when the theme of campus culture was not overachievement but liberation, and the eighties and early nineties, when it was postmodernism and the overthrow of all value judgments. The notorious Yale institution known as Sex Week—a biennial series of sex toy demonstrations, student lingerie shows, and lectures by pornographers—wouldn’t have been out of place in either of these eras. Consequently, Yale’s sexual culture is often mistaken for mere depravity by outside observers who assume that it is just another byproduct of moral relativism.

schmidtIt would be more accurate to say that Yale students treat sex as one more arena in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but to impress. Every amateur sonneteer secretly believes his verse to be as good as the United States poet laureate’s, and every undergraduate programmer suspects his code rivals the best in Silicon Valley. It’s not very different for Yale students to say that, if pornography is the gold standard of sexual prowess, then that is the standard to which they must aspire.

Take a look at the Sex Week schedule of events (if you have a strong stomach) and you will see just how much of the itinerary is devoted to instruction—how to give the best this, get the most that, and generally become as accomplished at sex as you are at everything else. “Many of us here have never failed at anything, and we don’t want to start now,” explained a rather frank female attendee of a Sex Week event called “Getting What You Really Want,” quoted in the Yale Daily News in 2010.

Speaking of Ivy League attitudes about sex: